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Beyond dolls, STEM toys may draw more girls

Beyond dolls, STEM toys may draw more girls


It’s important to recognize that girls can enjoy creating circuits, conducting science experiments and designing structures, just as much as boys."  Monica Cardella, director of Purdue University’s INSPIRE Institute for Pre-College Engineering.

by JUDY SCHRIENER  for BuiltWorlds 

What’s with this consistently huge gender disparity in design technology? Surveys – and plain, old, everyday observation – show that technology in general is dominated by men. Even so-called new tech businesses dominated by younger workers have a dearth of women. Google and Facebook reportedly have fewer than 20% female tech workers.  

Not surprisingly, that disparity is even more pronounced in design and construction.

In that field as a whole, only about 9% of the U.S. construction industry is composed of women, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor. The number of women technology directors at architecture firms in the U.S. is even less, 5%. Considering that over 40% of architectural graduates are women and 25% of designers at U.S. firms are also female, that’s a dismal showing. It’s exacerbated by the fact that nearly everybody in the profession now, both men and women, have at least one computer. So why are there so few in tech leadership positions? 

Maybe it starts in childhood. Toy makers have, by and large, bungled their attempts to appeal to girls in this arena. Just last month, Mattel, which you’d think would know better, pulled its 2010 Barbie book I Can Be a Computer Engineer from Amazon after a blogger’s post created a huge backlash from people who were outraged that Barbie could come up with a design idea, BUT then laughingly said that it would take two boy colleagues to do the coding to make it real. To make matters worse, Computer Engineer Barbie then also infected both her and her sister’s computers with a virus before returning helplessly to those same two boys to 'rescue' them. Good grief!

Ahead of its time, BACK THEN

On the plus side, a product insert note to Lego users’ parents written by the company in the 1970s –when the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment was still being debated – actually lobbied for gender equality for kids playing with LEGOs (see below). In part, it read: “The urge to create is equally strong in all children. Boys and girls. It’s imagination that counts. Not skill... The most important thing is to put the right material in their hands and let them create whatever appeals to them.” 

Interestingly, the comments from parents on LEGO’s Facebook page, where the note was recently posted, were loud and clear in their objections to the current sets being targeted separately to boys and girls. One comment summed it up thusly: Yeah, that *was* a really progressive insert back in the day. And then there's today, where LEGO makes complex, conflict- and work-themed sets aggressively marketed to boys, and easier-to-assemble dollhouse and make-up parlor sets offered to girls. Nostalgia doesn't actually do you any favors when you've taken a huge step backwards, y'know.”

To its credit, Lego in August came out with its new Research Institute set that features three female scientists, an idea submitted to the toy maker by a female geochemist through its Lego Ideas site.  This fall, sales of the item reportedly are so strong nationally that stores are having trouble keeping them in stock.

Another modern set of construction toys aimed at girls, Goldieblox, made headlines a year ago when the company – started by a female Stanford Engineering student – used a Beastie Boys song without the band's permission in an otherwise well-received TV commercial. It was a terrific ad, featuring an indoor-outdoor Rube Goldberg machine and a running band of creative young girls. In the end, while it was a shame they had to pull the music, the publicity undoubtedly helped boost sales. The company told me that Goldieblox is now sold by more than 6,000 retailers worldwide, and this year the product line was doubled to offer six separate toys instead of three. 


Elsewhere, SmartMax makes building blocks and accessories that join together with heavy duty magnets in a variety of sets featuring girls, or girls and boys on the boxes. Roominate offers toy sets aimed at getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It was started by three women engineers. Little Bits makes magnetized electronic toy parts that fit together “to prototype and learn with electronics,” according to its Website. 

In November, Purdue University’s College of Engineering released its first Engineering Gift Guide, developed through the INSPIRE Institute for Pre-College Engineering. It includes a separate Parents' Guide to Introducing Engineering at Home. This month, Hard Hat Hub, the Chicago-based industry job search engine, also published its first Ultimate Toy Gift Guide for Hard Hat Kids!

Girls + Games = G-Force

Online games also are attracting more girls, which should bode well for females’ future in AEC, an industry that sees more 'gamification' every day. Minecraft, the wildly popular building block-buster recently purchased by Microsoft for $2 billion (yes, with a 'b'!), allows users to build pretty much anything, from tools to buildings to cities, and more. It's incredibly detailed: "the doors squeak and the windows work," one parent told me. Girls currently make up about 25-30% of users, according to industry estimates, but some of them are quite prominent in the gaming world, including one who posts her gameplay on YouTube and has over 1.5 million subscribers! 

Otherwise, the Web is rife with suggestions for tech toys for both genders. One that caught my eye is  Parent's Studio, which uses this nifty tagline, "There's more to life than coupons and mini-vans!" It suggests 6 High-Quality Tech Toys for Kids, including the Kindle Fire Kids tablet, and MOSS, a modular robotics building kit. 

Still, few toys specifically steer girls toward design and construction. But getting them interested in technology, building and science, and letting their imaginations take them to places beyond "the valley of the dolls" – well, that’s definitely a start. 

Judy Schriener is an award-winning veteran journalist who has covered the design and construction industry since the 1980s. As an associate editor with ENR, she was one of the few women who traveled alone to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to cover the reconstruction and oil field fires after the first Gulf War. Later, she was also among the first reporters there to write about the use and potential of the Internet in commercial construction. In 2010, she co-authored with architect Mike Kephart, Building for Boomers, Guide to Design and Construction, published by McGraw-Hill. Today, she hosts her own general interest radio show, Off the Record, which airs every Tuesday at 2 pm EST. Recent guests included brothers Jon & Ron Antevy, co-founders of e-Builder. She can be reached at 

For more on this topic, the author also spoke with three industry experts...

Go to: Youth, not just gender, will shape OUR tech future 

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